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Science

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others 219

HughPickens.com writes Everyone who is part of an organization — a company, a nonprofit, a condo board — has experienced the pathologies that can occur when human beings try to work together in groups. Now the NYT reports on recent research on why some groups, like some people, are reliably smarter than others. In one study, researchers grouped 697 volunteer participants into teams of two to five members. Each team worked together to complete a series of short tasks, which were selected to represent the varied kinds of problems that groups are called upon to solve in the real world. One task involved logical analysis, another brainstorming; others emphasized coordination, planning and moral reasoning. Teams with higher average I.Q.s didn't score much higher on collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group's success. Instead, the smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics (PDF). First, their members contributed more equally to the team's discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group. Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible. Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. It appeared that it was not "diversity" (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team's intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at "mindreading" than men.

Interestingly enough, a second study has now replicated the these findings for teams that worked together online communicating purely by typing messages into a browser . "Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as "Theory of Mind," to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe."
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Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others

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  • are thought to be there specifically so others are able to see who you are communicating with. Improving cooperation between people.
    • by RabidReindeer ( 2625839 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @09:26AM (#48849159)

      are thought to be there specifically so others are able to see who you are communicating with. Improving cooperation between people.

      This doesn't bode well for those of us who lean autistic.

      • by jythie ( 914043 )
        It is indeed a disadvantage of being an autistic person, but it also helps outline areas where one can do well or where one will struggle so one can find organizations where one's strengths are more of an asset.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 19, 2015 @12:01PM (#48849943)

        I am autistic and it is true I can't work in a team, at least not with neurotypical people who can't communicate properly and who rely far too much on emotions instead of simply talking. Each time I tried, I always felt extremely frustrated with the others and the others felt extremely frustrated with me.

        Right now I'm a computer consultant. The major problem I face is when I must meet clients. Even in a technical meeting, people are in constant need of socialization. If they don't have this need satisfied, they simply can't work. So in a meeting, I can't think because I must use all of my mind to provide this socialization to others.

        My solution is to communicate mostly with emails and telecommute. Of course I can't work for long for the same client, because after a while that client feels frustrated I don't want to meet more often with him. I now live in Quebec, which means I speak French, and the simple fact that I always say "vous" and can't say "tu" to a client frustrate them after a while.

        Having said that, when the team is clearly hierarchical and tasks are clearly divided, I outperform about everyone.

        An example of that was my two years of military service (as a conscript). I was promoted corporal in 6 months, then master corporal 6 months after and sergeant after another 6 months (in my regiment, there was only two places for sergeant conscripts and I was one of those two).

        Because of my military experience, I do think autistic people can work very well in a team. The problem is our world is not a technocracy nor a meritocracy like in the military, but a "socialocracy". It is ruled and shaped by people who have the best social skill, not by people who have the best technical skills. And of course, "hypersocial" people want a world where their social skills is the most important. So anyone who doesn't play their game, using the rules which give them an advantage, is someone they don't want to work with.

        • by myowntrueself ( 607117 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @03:46PM (#48851521)

          You don't have to be autistic to find oversocialisation in work meetings to be a problem. Where I work easily half our team meetings are taken up with jokes and banter. Its ridiculous because we actually have work to discuss and work to do after the meetings.

          If only people would stop cracking jokes things would be so much better for me. We are there, at the work place, to do a job. That job is not being comedians, its being engineers.

          And I am very proudly neurotypical.

      • by mjwx ( 966435 )

        are thought to be there specifically so others are able to see who you are communicating with. Improving cooperation between people.

        This doesn't bode well for those of us who lean autistic.

        Communication is a two way street.

        In my experience with Autistic people, you can easily overcome the difficulties they have with talking by being a good listener. Having an Autistic person in your team can be a boon, as long as you can communicate with them (especially if you work in IT).

        But being a good team is more than just communication (which is talking and listening, people to talk but dont listen are terrible communicators, even worse than an autistic person) but organisational skills. A team n

    • by u38cg ( 607297 )
      I wonder if the Slashdot web design team can see the white's of each other's eyes, or if they are blinded by the 122px margin.
    • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @11:38AM (#48849813) Homepage

      Teams are great for doing parallel repetetive tasks such as testing thousands of compounds to pharmacological activity or building a bridge or whacking out 10K lines of boiler plate code. But if you want inspiration or genius or a completely take on a problem then you're looking at individuals (even if they've stood on shoulders of giants). Einstein didn't think up Relativity in a scrum with powerpoint presentations (ok they weren't around then but you get the point), nor did Turing come up his theories on conference calls.

      This will sound arrogant but I don't care - teams are great for the slightly dim and/or lazy people in the world because it means they don't have to put so much effort in or think too much. Hence why management tend to be so fond of them.

      • by jythie ( 914043 )
        While it might be true that neither of those people did their best work when dealing with scrum or conference calls, both thrived in collaborative environments where it took multiple great minds working together to solve complex problems.

        Your rant does not communicate arrogance, it communicates insecurity and an inferiority complex. But it is ok, not everyone is cut out for teamwork, and there will always be small simple tasks open to people like you.
        • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

          "both thrived in collaborative environments where it took multiple great minds working together to solve complex problems."

          If the collaborative enviroments had anything to do with it then all those theories would have been released as a team effort.

          "Your rant does not communicate arrogance, it communicates insecurity and an inferiority complex."

          Does it? Oh. I guess I'd better go and have a cry then hadn't I.

          " But it is ok, not everyone is cut out for teamwork,"

          You're right - some of us don't need others to

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 19, 2015 @12:47PM (#48850205)

        No it doesn't sound arrogant, it sounds defensive and most of all stupid. Stupid because you are missing the whole point, the article is not about who is better, it is about what is needed to make a good team. And yes teams are important, not just for your stupid examples. More generally there is a need for organization, you can't just let people do their thing in their corner and hope that you get everything you need. So there is a need for "smart" people and a need for "social" people, we need various qualities to achieve things.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) * <mojoNO@SPAMworld3.net> on Monday January 19, 2015 @02:18PM (#48850961) Homepage

        Most tasks don't require genius, they require quality. Rockstars often produce interesting stuff, but in a company you can't rely on them. If they leave you have an unmaintainable system that only one person ever understood. The lack of diverse ideas and experience leads to an extreme kind of monoculture. Teams are better for most tasks.

      • by swillden ( 191260 ) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Monday January 19, 2015 @03:23PM (#48851385) Homepage Journal

        Einstein didn't think up Relativity in a scrum with powerpoint presentations (ok they weren't around then but you get the point), nor did Turing come up his theories on conference calls.

        Yes, they did. Both of them.

        Okay, not scrum, powerpoints or con-calls, obviously, but both of them deeply relied on collaboration with others. Einstein relied heavily on chats with various friends, especially Besso, Solovine, Habicht and even to some extent his wife (during his early work, before they separated) to refine his ideas. There's no doubt that he was the ultimate source of the core elements of his theories, nor that he did nearly all of the work to elaborate them, but bouncing ideas off of others was critical to his method of work. Turing I know less about, but I know that he also worked as part of a team, and many of his brilliant ideas built upon the work of those around him.

        I do think your examples are well-chosen, though, because I think they're examples of the sorts of people who least benefit from teamwork. For everyone else, it's even more important.

  • by OzPeter ( 195038 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @09:07AM (#48849073)

    What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as "Theory of Mind," to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe."

    That sounds a whole like Empathy to me, but dressed up in some fancy new clothes.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) * <mojoNO@SPAMworld3.net> on Monday January 19, 2015 @09:23AM (#48849149) Homepage

      It's more than just empathy, it's knowing what other people know and how they think about things.

      A classic example I remember from years ago was a salesman telling some people about a computer they were interested in. He told them it had 1GB of RAM and 250GB hard drive an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, without realizing that they had no idea what any of that meant. If he had understood that they didn't know that, and that they thought of RAM in terms of "it runs a few different apps and doesn't slow down" and the hard drive as "it can store a lot of photos and videos" he would have been following the Theory of Mind.

      Engineers often do it as well. They explain things in the terms that they understand them, rather than in a way that accounts for the listener's knowledge and beliefs about how things are. In a group some people become ineffective and don't contribute anything meaningful because of gaps in their knowledge or because they have incorrect assumptions that others are not aware of, and no-one is a good enough communicator to recognize that and bring them up to speed.

      • by reanjr ( 588767 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @11:38AM (#48849815) Homepage

        Start with a precise explanation. If anyone is too ignorant to understand the precise explanation, they should speak up and ask questions. People who don't speak up; THEY have the problem communicating. Not the people explaining things.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) * <mojoNO@SPAMworld3.net> on Monday January 19, 2015 @01:58PM (#48850819) Homepage

          That's not a very effective way of communicating. The way you phrase it you seem to blame people for being ignorant, but often the reason they are coming to you for information is to fix that, or maybe they just have a different area of expertise. No-one can be an expert on everything.

          Being a good communicator requires you to be objective and helpful. Figure out what the important information is, what the listener is likely to know and what their current understanding is likely to be. I think a lot of people really struggle with the last part, because they assume that if someone doesn't have the same understanding as them then they are just wrong or stupid and must be corrected with a simple statement of fact. Aside from anything else they are much more likely to agree with your position if you explain it well and in terms of their current understanding and beliefs.

          It's not about who has a problem or winning and losing, or weeding out the morons etc. It's about getting everyone on the same page so that you function as a team, as a hive mind.

        • by Livius ( 318358 )

          If your customers did not understand you, it is your problem whether or not it's your fault.

    • by epine ( 68316 )

      That sounds a whole like Empathy to me, but dressed up in some fancy new clothes.

      How could you know when you identity every person in the entire Empathy clan as just some Jim Bob or Jane Barb from poverty valley?

      Empathy was never a precise concept in the first place, and most people are too lazy to clearly distinguish the perceptual side of empathy from the dispositional side (the later of which is heavily conflated with approval seeking and conflict avoidance, and these are further conflated with meekness/

    • by nine-times ( 778537 ) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Monday January 19, 2015 @12:37PM (#48850151) Homepage

      I think "empathy" is generally characterized more by feelings. You see someone who looks upset, and you find it upsetting. I think this "Theory of Mind" business is more about understanding what else might be going on in another person's head.

      Like... you know how when you're a kid, and you're shocked to see your teacher at the grocery store? You hadn't really thought about it, but you had somehow assumed that your teacher lived at the school, and perhaps didn't need to eat. And the important part there is, you hadn't really thought about it.

      I think that's sort of an early level of the realization, "Other people are also people, like me. They have lives of their own, they think their own thoughts, just like me." There are deeper understandings of this that people develop, like perhaps realizing, "I sort of think of life like a story, and I'm the main character. But other people must also think of themselves as the main character. To an outside observer, there's no reason why my perspective is more correct."

      And I think that in adulthood, some people develop that sensibility in much deeper and more profound ways. They can put themselves in another person's shoes, and not just feel empathy for them, but actually understand how things must appear to another person. They can think about things like, "I disagree with you, but I completely understand why you think that, and I'm not sure you're wrong." Some adults develop very strong skills and impulses along those lines, while others don't. Many people, even into adulthood, think as simply as, "I disagree with you, and therefore you must be wrong and stupid."

      I'm not sure that's what they mean, but I would guess that's the sort of thing being included in "keeping track of what other people feel, know, and believe."

    • Empathy and theory of mind are related, for sure, but they might be very distant cousins.

      Theory of mind is a term used to describe the ability some species have where individuals behave as if they can put themselves into the minds of others. Lions exhibit it when one lioness will deliberately allow itself to be seen and in doing so cause the herd of antelope to move into the ambush that has been set up by other females in the pride. Each participating huntress is somehow aware of how the prey is likely to

  • by BarbaraHudson ( 3785311 ) <barbarahudson@NOSPaM.gmail.com> on Monday January 19, 2015 @09:19AM (#48849127) Journal

    "replicated the these findings for teams that worked together online communicating purely by typing messages into a browser"

    So I guess that emoticons work for "out-of-band" communications. :-)

    Of course, if it were Linus Torvalds going the ASCII art route, it would probably be more like "You #-( @@ $@%$ %*^@^##% dummy!" :-(

    • by Nemyst ( 1383049 )
      Never let Linus near Unicode glyphs. The emoticons he'd produce would probably cause a rift in the space-time continuum.

      Fortunately, Slashdot doesn't support Unicode, so we're safe.
  • by cellocgw ( 617879 ) <cellocgw@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Monday January 19, 2015 @09:30AM (#48849171) Journal

    I just had this feeling all along that the results would turn out this way.

  • by abies ( 607076 )

    To quote from the report (c is a magic number they have calculated to indicate how successful groups were at collaborative tasks)
    "c was positively and significantly correlated with the proportion of females in the group ( r =0.23, P =0.007)"
    "there was as ignificant correlation between c and the average social sensitivity of group members, [...](r=0.26,P=0.002)"

    What? Since when 0.23-26 correlation is 'significant' correlation? Just the fact that everything else they have measured had even lower effect doesn'

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 19, 2015 @10:16AM (#48849377)

      "(r=0.23, P=0.007)" "(r=0.26,P=0.002)"

      What? Since when 0.23-26 correlation is 'significant' correlation?

      *significance* is indicated by p: "The smaller the p-level, the more significant the relationship"

      *strength* is indicated by r: " The larger the correlation, the stronger the relationship"

      http://janda.org/c10/Lectures/topic06/L24-significanceR.htm

      • by west ( 39918 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @11:00AM (#48849601)

        And just to make it clear, r = 0.25 is pretty darn strong, especially for anything involving as many variables as human interaction.

        I'm quite amazed it's this large, but then again, it matches my real life experience for complex team-based problems (rather than combining parallel single-person tasks, which is more common, but not nearly as tricky).

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

          It seems like men are less willing to be aggressive when women are in the group, so rather than pushing their point of view as the only possible "correct" one they will compromise more. I'm not surprised that that results in overall better outcomes because it is more polarized - either the most aggressive guy is right and it turns out great, or he is wrong and it all goes to pot. A consensus and willingness to change change issues are raised is a better strategy on balance.

          #include <stddisclaimer.h>

      • by abies ( 607076 )

        Thanks - I stand corrected. I'm not native english speaker and I took statistics classes (many years ago) in my native language and somehow english significance got merged with my native term for strength in my mind.

        What I really meant was that r around 0.25 doesn't look like _strong_ correlation to me (which they have never really claimed in the paper, so my attack was wrong), but west below suggests 0.25 is a lot in social science...

    • by u38cg ( 607297 )
      You do not understand the difference between effect size and statistical significance, or what either of these terms mean. Please do not attempt to make informed comments on statistical issues without doing some basic reading in this area, kthxbai.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 19, 2015 @09:42AM (#48849215)

    intelligence. The study would not be publishable.

    • by Shados ( 741919 )

      Joke or not, pretty much. And that gives some major bias. Depending on how studies are done, things with very close metrics like effect of genders on XYZ can go either way. But since you can only publish those that show women are better, it ends up that all studies show women are better at everything.

      Every so often you'll have a study that shows the opposite for some specific or another, but that will get spinned somehow. ie: I read a study recently about how women don't do well in competitive environments

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @10:06AM (#48849329) Journal
    It all sounds sciency enough but I have grown very disenchanted with these experiments that use "simple tasks" to judge "$parameter". As my company switched to Agile I was forced to undergo "Agile for managers" or whatever. They made senior manager stuff envelopes and place stamps and had a few gotchas. It made me realize the root of the con game is to pick the tasks that are so simple any team member could do it. The variability in skill set, the varieties of skills needed to complete the project is not fully addressed.

    Instead of some simple tasks which anyone can do, if we throw in some tasks that could only be done by one or two persons in the team, then it would be more realistic. Something like some step needs derivative of a function and only one team member remembers calculus 101, or requires translating a passage from French to English.. The moment you introduce variation in skill sets among the team members, agile for software breaks down. This experiment too might have different results.

    • by Greyfox ( 87712 )
      I thought about that as well, having done a similar exercise in a similar training. It's pretty rare that a team encounters a problem that only one member of that team can solve. I stayed on a project from 2000-2005 and got so familiar with the code base and the capabilities of my team that I could estimate the times pretty accurately based on the team member doing it. The manager could ask me how long something would take and I'd say "About 3 days for me, or about 2 weeks for John." Those numbers could eas
      • It is quite common in engineering software development to come across features that depend on one person. If your team has a few bachelors degree guys all proficient in the software development platform you might see the skill set perfectly interchangeable. But if your team has a mixture of Masters and PhDs working on engineering analysis there will be tons of tasks that only one team member can do. Companies can not hire multiple PhDs in the same super sub specialty. Typically companies will hire a dozen P
    • by west ( 39918 )

      The variability in skill set, the varieties of skills needed to complete the project is not fully addressed.

      This is a good point. But I'm looking at a lot of businesses that are essentially de-skilling their work environment in order to increase worker fungibility. Any design that cannot be meaningfully understood by 95% of the team is sent back to the drawing board. It's a bit frustrating to have to leave elegant, efficient, but complex designs on the table, but businesses that are doing so seem to be

    • by Xest ( 935314 )

      "The moment you introduce variation in skill sets among the team members, agile for software breaks down."

      Out of interest, why? and what particular part of agile given that it's a broad topic with lots of methodologies?

      I don't see how speciality requirements causes an issue, agile doesn't remove the necessity to ensure a team is competent in having the required skillset for the task at hand.

      Agile isn't magic, many things from the past are still relevant, if you don't have enough French translators to do the

    • I immediately considered the impact of this study on what we know about Agile development.

      While I genuinely like the agile development concepts, I foresaw some fundamental problems with it. One of the major keystone values is a reliance on person-to-person and person-to-group communications. Something that, stereotypically, those in the software industry are not very keen on, and are rarely hired for.

      If we believe this study, and deep interpersonal skills(*) are required to effectively leverage a team, it

      • Perhaps this would be a reason to encourage more women to enter our field? Whether by nature or nurture women seem to generally be at least a bit better at interpersonal stuff than their comparably competent male counterparts. I suspect that having even 20-30% of the team be significantly better communicators than the current norm would dramatically improve the outcome.

        Of course the counterpoint would be that to be effective the new members would have to be welcomed and integrated into the team - somethin

    • For Agile to work well, you need to have experienced, capable team members, who can manage themselves. When you have team members who can't manage themselves, the purpose of the manager is to help them learn the skills they need to manage themselves. Everyone can take turn being scrummaster, for example, and the manager's job is to help teach the less competent programmer how to do that.
      • For Agile to work well, you need to have experienced, capable team members, who can manage themselves.

        If you have that then why would you use Agile? If you have experienced and capable members with the maturity to manage themselves then trying to micromanage them ala Agile is counter-productive. Agile is almost exclusively for poor and/or inexperienced teams who lack the maturity and self-discipline to manage themselves, which is why they have to be micromanaged and reminded once/twice a day about what they are doing.

        • If you are doing micromanagement via 'agile,' then you are favoring processes over individuals, which goes directly against the agile manifesto. The daily standup is for teammembers to communicate amongst themselves, not for a daily status report to managers, which is why the manager is not supposed to be present, to prevent it from degenerating (also, you're supposed to stand up to prevent it from degenerating).

          Micromanaging is almost always counterproductive, in any management method. I understand wher
  • Just last week I read an entire book by Allan and Barbara Pease. Even this book (which promises the moon in three easy lessons) says that body language is best interpreted though consistent clusters.

    Here, the static eye test amounts to a form of dead reckoning.

    Claiming that this equates to the general ability to read people smacks of claiming that someone who can track big game from muddy impressions and broken twigs has the cognitive drop on Charles Darwin on all matters of big game observation.

    As with pe

  • by tommeke100 ( 755660 ) on Monday January 19, 2015 @10:27AM (#48849425)
    Has anyone looked at the graphs and the "linear correlation" between RME and the "collective intelligence" from the study?
    There's all kinds of wrong in there. First of all, looks like the dots of the study show a - very scattered - vertical pattern, with actually the best teams seeming to have a rather average RME (higher end though).
    Also, who says there isn't a correlation with intelligence in general and RME? Seems to me people "who care" or "pay better attention" will be better at RME as well.
    And what's the task to be solved? Apparently seems to be a sudoku puzzle. If you don't really know how that goes to begin with, you're already at loss (even if you're smarter).
  • Theory (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kria ( 126207 ) <roleplayer@carrie.gmail@com> on Monday January 19, 2015 @11:01AM (#48849611) Journal

    There are studies that show that women are less likely to speak up when outnumbered by men. So if the most successful teams were ones where everyone contributed equally, it seems like those groups would tend to either have more women so that women are more willing to speak up, or no women at all (assuming that men are all likely to contribute in that environment).

    http://www.salon.com/2012/09/2... [salon.com]
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01... [nytimes.com]

    • If that were a major factor at play, you'd expect the teams of only men to do as well as teams of only women, and teams with mixed men and women performing worst (because they'd be short on brainpower due to the women not speaking up).

      I think what's going on is that this test is pretty limited in its scope. In the real world, women tend to be more risk-adverse than men. They tend to stick with the tried and true instead of striking out into the unknown. If you limit the group task to something which i
  • I'd like to see some guidelines come out of this that will help get the best from any team with any composition. Perhaps some practical ways to help people construct a more effective "Theory of mind".
  • It appeared that it was not "diversity" (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team's intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at "mindreading" than men.

    Perhaps the women felt more comfortable and/or were allowed to speak more w/o interruption when there were more women on the team. From the NY Times article Speaking While Female [nytimes.com] (Why Women Stay Quiet at Work):

    Almost every time they started to speak, they were interrupted or shot down before finishing their pitch. When one had a good idea, a male writer would jump in and run with it before she could complete her thought.

    Sadly, their experience is not unusual.

    Suspecting that powerful women stayed quiet because they feared a backlash, Professor Brescoll looked deeper. She asked professional men and women to evaluate the competence of chief executives who voiced their opinions more or less frequently. Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.

  • their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.

    Well, there goes Google.

Somebody ought to cross ball point pens with coat hangers so that the pens will multiply instead of disappear.

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